Thursday, July 23, 2009

What do the rabbis have to do with the mayors? - What you need to know about the Jewish side of the New Jersey corruption scandal

Dear friends,

I wrote the following, to sum up some of my experiences today, and to clarify some very deep misconceptions about the role of Jews and rabbis in this scandal.

Incidentally, the single most helpful thing I have read to explain the scandal is the Department of Justice press release, here:


What do the rabbis have to do with the mayors?
What you need to know about the Jewish side of the New Jersey corruption scandal

What do the rabbis have to do with the mayors?
A nervous caller to my office this morning was certainly wondering.
"Rabbi Scheinberg? Are you okay?"
"Yes, I'm fine."
"Because my neighbor just told me that the mayor and the rabbi in Hoboken were arrested! I said, 'no, not Rabbi Rob, there's no way!' But she said, 'You know, sometimes it's the people who seem most trustworthy are the ones who you have to watch out for..."

Thus began my day this morning. Over the course of the day, I had more conversations with people who had read the headlines, including the words "Hoboken" and "rabbis' and "arrested," and were concerned that perhaps I, or the synagogue, were involved in the corruption scandal.

Later in the day, as I walked around Hoboken and children waved to me and said, "Hi, Rabbi," or when I visited someone in the hospital and introduced myself as the patient's rabbi, I got a sense that, to those who overheard the conversations, the title commanded less respect than yesterday, and that the word "rabbi" had been dragged through the mud today. And it made me furious at those rabbis who ostensibly share my religion but seem to overlook the Jewish ethical tradition, just as I am furious at the corrupt politicians. The traditional term for these religious leaders is "mechalelei ha-shem" - "those who desecrate God's name."

It was fascinating to see the initial news reports that sought to make sense of this peculiar story that included both corrupt politicians and corrupt rabbis. In those early hours, reporters and commentators struggled to come up with a coherent narrative that linked corruption with money-laundering and that linked the misconduct of the politicians with the misconduct of the rabbis, and that somehow linked it all to that tantalizing news about trafficking in human body parts.

And it was disheartening to see how the story motivated many on-line anti-Semites to make blanket condemnations of rabbis and Jews in general as responsible for the woes of Hudson County, New Jersey, and the United States. (Just look at the comments sections of for plenty of examples.)

By mid-day, people who were following the news reports closely realized that there were really two almost completely separate stories here: the rabbis/money-laundering story, and the politicians/corruption story.

What did these two stories have in common? Simply that it was the same cooperating witness, Solomon Dwek, who assisted the FBI in all these investigations. He is a member of the Syrian Orthodox Jewish community on the New Jersey Shore. In the course of being prosecuted for his own financial misconduct, he chose to become a cooperating witness, presumably to reduce his own punishment. He then gave the FBI access to whomever he could. He started by giving them access to the institutions and leaders of the Syrian Jewish community in Deal and Brooklyn, exposing the elaborate money-laundering scheme. Then, he started to approach various mayors and political leaders, posing as a developer and dangling bribes in exchange for preferential treatment in the zoning process.

So what do the rabbis and the New Jersey mayors have in common? Almost nothing, except that their arrests happened to take place on the same day, and the same witness was involved.

It is of course terribly damaging and embarrassing to the Jewish community that there were so many observant Jews, including at least five rabbis, apparently involved in financial misconduct. But headlines like "Mayors of Hoboken, Secaucus, and several rabbis arrested in corruption probe" make it appear that rabbis are the big players in corruption in New Jersey, when that is obviously not the case. And as the witness in the case was an Orthodox Jew from the Syrian community, it is not surprising that that's the first community to which he led the FBI. Had he been from a different ethnic or religious group, it could have been a different group in the headlines.

But for those who catch just snippets of the radio news bulletins, or those who quickly scan the newspaper headlines, all these distinctions will sadly mean nothing. The mayors and the rabbis will always be linked in their minds, and the story will be seen through the lens of whatever stereotypes about Jews and rabbis they already had.

Comments on corruption arrests in New Jersey

Here is the note I sent to the congregation earlier today.
Yes, it makes for interesting reading next to my comments at Mayor Cammarano's inauguration (see below).

Dear friends,

You may have seen the news reports this morning about the arrest of Hoboken's Mayor Peter Cammarano, as well as various other political leaders and religious leaders in New Jersey, by the FBI in a wide-ranging corruption and money laundering probe. (Link

Many of us find these arrests shocking. If the allegations are true, these political and religious leaders have violated the public trust in a major and unacceptable way and need to suffer the consequences of their actions. The situation is a reminder to us of the high degree of ethical behavior we demand from our public officials and institutional leaders. I hope that the judicial system will yield just verdicts in their cases. In the meantime, I think of them and their families and empathize with what they are going through right now. They are innocent until proven guilty, and if any of them are innocent, I hope that this can be discovered swiftly with minimum further disruption to their lives.

You may also have seen that among those arrested were some rabbis, and some Jewish institutions in Brooklyn NY and Deal NJ are under investigation. That the headlines include the words "Hoboken" and "rabbis" and "arrested" has already led several people to contact the synagogue with concern about whether our synagogue is involved, or whether I am involved. The answer, as you certainly guessed, is categorically "no." I learned about this situation for the first time at about 9am this morning. It goes without saying that our synagogue's financial management is a model of ethical propriety. Our community has absolutely no ties to the Jewish institutions which are being investigated.

As we pray each Shabbat morning:
"Our God and God of our ancestors, we ask your blessings upon our city, and our country,
and its leaders and advisors, and all who exercise just and rightful authority.
Teach them insights of your Torah, so they may administer all affairs of state fairly,
so that peace and security, happiness and prosperity, justice and freedom, may forever abide in our midst."

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

Friday, July 17, 2009

Rabbi Scheinberg in an Egyptian magazine

Last Shabbat I mentioned the article about me in Arabic in an Egyptian magazine. This happened a few years ago and I have never gotten the article translated. It occurred to me that I should post it here so that anyone who wants to translate it can do so. The magazine is called "The Voice of Arabism," or "Sot Al-Oroba," and the author is Yehia Gad-alla El-Tawil. I believe the article focuses on interreligious activities in Hudson County NJ.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Inauguration Day in Hoboken

Dear friends,

I was honored today to speak twice at Hoboken’s inauguration festivities.

First, this morning I spoke at the Interfaith Service at Our Lady of Grace Church, in honor of the new mayor and councilpeople. I was asked to share a text from Jewish tradition and to use it as a basis for identifying some of the leadership challenges for the new mayor and council. My remarks are below.

Second, I was honored to deliver the benediction at the conclusion of the inauguration ceremony this afternoon. Those remarks are also below. (You may notice that some of the wording is adapted from the Prayer for Our Country that we recite every Shabbat during our services.)

The day had many highlights for me. The inauguration ceremony featured a masterful speech by Newark’s Mayor Cory Booker, along with speeches by Governor Corzine, Senator Lautenberg, and a very gracious acceptance speech by Mayor Cammarano.

I have to share, though, that the emotional highlight for me was when Councilman Ravi Bhalla spoke immediately after being sworn in. You may know that Councilman Bhalla is now the highest-ranking Sikh official in the United States government. I was close enough to see that he took the oath of office with his hand on a book of the Sikh scriptures. After being sworn in, he told the story of how his father had arrived to the United States 40 years ago on a science scholarship, knowing no one and with not more than $50 in his pocket. His father had been animated by the dream that the United States was a place where people were truly free to be different -- and now, 40 years later, his son’s inauguration as a Councilman was a fulfillment of that American dream. As he spoke, I was thinking about the first generations of Jewish immigrants to the United States, animated by that same dream, and their excitement when Jews were first able to attain elected office despite their minority status.

Later on on Wednesday afternoon, at the City Council meeting that immediately followed the inauguration, USH member Dawn Zimmer was unanimously elected as Council President, and she took her oath of office with her hand on a Chumash (a Jewish edition of the text of the Torah with commentary). Seeing Dawn’s Chumash and Ravi Bhalla’s book of Sikh scriptures filled me with pride at the way that our country and our city value diversity and welcome the participation of the various stones in our community’s mosaic. That image will certainly be on my mind as we approach July 4.

Bivrakhah (with blessings),

Rob Scheinberg

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg’s remarks, Hoboken inauguration interfaith service, July 1, 2009, Our Lady of Grace Church

On behalf of my community, the United Synagogue of Hoboken,
I bring greetings, congratulations, and best wishes to you, Mayor-Elect Cammarano,
and to you, councilmembers-elect Bhalla, Marsh and Mello.
We wish you much success in the leadership of our community.
Every week during our services, we'll be praying for your success, good health, and wisdom
as you address our city's challenges.

I appreciate the invitation from Mayor-Elect Cammarano and from Father Santora
to speak personally, to share a text drawn from Jewish tradition
that is connected to some of our city's leadership challenges.

The following is a story from the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Yevamot 13a), a holy Jewish text from more than 1500 years ago.

The residents of the town of Simonia needed a leader and teacher and judge for their community.

They approached Rabbi Judah the Prince, the greatest rabbi of his generation, for his guidance.
He sent them a scholar whose name was Levi.

When Levi arrived to Simonia for the first time, the residents had constructed a huge dais for him to sit on, to honor him.
They seated him on the dais
and they proceeded to ask him a question of religious law.

But Levi was unable to answer.

They asked him a second question, but again he was unable to answer.

The people of Simonia said to themselves, so perhaps he is not an expert in religious law.

They then asked him a question of Biblical interpretation.

but again, now a third time, Levi was unable to answer.

The people of Simonia reported back to Rabbi Judah the prince: Is this the kind of scholar you sent to us!?

Rabbi Judah the Prince responded: I swear to you, I sent you a scholar every bit as good as myself!

Now Rabbi Judah arranged to meet with Levi and asked him the same questions that Levi had been asked in Simonia.
And to each question, Levi gave an excellent answer.

So Rabbi Judah asked Levi: Why is it that, when they asked you the very same questions in Simonia,
you were unable to answer?

And Levi responded: when I arrived in Simonia, they constructed a huge dais for me
and had me sit on it,
and I became so impressed with my own importance that all my wisdom suddenly left me.

Hoboken inaugurates today leaders of tremendous intelligence and wisdom
and political skill, and articulateness and passion and zeal to serve.
And our leaders will need every ounce of that intelligence and wisdom
to address the considerable challenges our city faces:
to bring a government back to fiscal responsibility, to plan for a city's future,
to care for the needs of its residents, with a special responsibility to those who are most vulnerable.
And meanwhile, to address lingering unresolved tensions, decades old,
among sub-communities in our city.
If there has ever been a Hoboken leadership team that could accomplish all that - this is that team.

But the story of Levi reminds us that even the wisest of us
can have our wisdom suddenly leave us
when we're sitting on a dais that's too high.
In our country, in our state,
in our county, and so regrettably, in our dear city -
intelligent and promising leaders
have sometimes become impressed with their own importance,
forgetting their covenant with their constituents
and the sacredness of their task.

When we look at the heroes of the Bible,
some of the greatest are the reluctant leaders -
Moses leads only after his arm has been twisted.
Isaiah regards himself as unworthy to lead until God reassures him.
Only then does he say, "here I am - send me."
They are willing to serve, but able to balance their confidence with humility.
They know that it's not all about them.

And so - my prayer for the mayor-elect and councilmembers-elect,
and all Hoboken's elected and appointed leaders:
may you learn the lesson of Levi.
May you balance your confidence with humility.
may you balance your decisiveness with careful consideration.
may you balance your zeal to speak with a readiness to listen.
may you balance your loyalty with a willingness to forge creative alliances.
May you remember that any dais of any size
can have a distorting effect on your wisdom -
and it's your wisdom we so desperately need.

And may you work together to lead Hoboken

to the bright future we know we can achieve.

Rabbi Robert Scheinberg, Benediction at Hoboken Mayoral and Council Inauguration, July 1, 2009, Howe Athletic Center:

Let us pray for our city and its leaders.

O Source of Life whom we know by so many different names,

We are grateful to live in a country that strives for liberty and justice,

a country where the people has the privilege to choose its leaders-
and to invest them with their authority.

Holy One, we ask You to send your blessings upon all the residents of our city,

people of all ethnicities and religions and careers and incomes and interests and walks of life,
who make our city a blessedly diverse mosaic.

Together, in true harmony, may we work to safeguard the ideals and free institutions
that are the pride and glory of our country and our city.

And, we pray, send your blessings upon our new Mayor, Peter Cammarano, and our new Councilpeople Bhalla, Marsh, and Mello,

together with our city's other elected and appointed officials.

Keep them in good health,

And grant them the wisdom to administer all their duties

with fairness and sensitivity.
May they balance confidence with humility,
and decisiveness with careful consideration.

May they go forth in peace to work together

to bring justice, equity, and prosperity to our community.


Rabbi Robert Scheinberg

United Synagogue of Hoboken

115 Park Avenue
Hoboken, NJ 07030

(201) 653-6696

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

links to Rabbi Scheinberg's audio files

Shalom everyone!

This page (at least for now) is for me to include links to audio files and other downloads for people in my congregation (United Synagogue of Hoboken) and other who are interested. - this is the Zip file for my recording of Friday Night Home Rituals and Songs.

My Havdalah recording:

My High Holiday Nusah recordings (please note that these are large files - over 100 MB for #1 and #2. Recorded in Jerusalem, 1995. Thanks to Rabbi Marc Wolf for putting them in digital format.)

Kol Nidrei as sung at USH